Evidence on social determinants of health and health equity (SDH/HE) is abundant but often not translated into effective policy action by governments. Governments’ health policies have continued to privilege medical care and individualised behaviour-change strategies. In the light of these limitations, the 2008 Commission on the Social Determinants of Health called on health agencies to adopt a stewardship role; to take action themselves and engage other government sectors in addressing SDH/HE. This article reports on research using analysis of health policy documents – published by nine Australian national or regional governments – to examine the extent to which the Australian health sector has taken up such a role.
We found policies across all jurisdictions commonly recognised evidence on SDH/HE and expressed goals to improve health equity. However, these goals were predominantly operationalised in health care and other individualised strategies. Relatively few strategies addressed SDH/HE outside of access to health care, and often they were limited in scope. National policies on Aboriginal health did most to systemically address SDH/HE.
We used Kingdon's (2011) multiple streams theory to examine how problems, policies and politics combine to enable, partially allow, or prevent action on SDH/HE in Australian health policy.